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Barcelona prepares for Champions League defense

Barcelona prepares for Champions League defense

From defending champion Barcelona to newcomer FC Unirea, 32 clubs from across Europe will find out their opponents in the group stage of the Champions League on Thursday.
The draw in Monte Carlo also has first-time entrants Rubin Kazan, champion of Russia, and Bundesliga winner Wolfsburg, but it has a familiar feel with some of England's top clubs, including Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
France will send a repeat trio of Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon, while Italy is at least fielding its big three of Inter Milan, Juventus and AC Milan, the seven-time European champions returning after a one-year absence. FC Porto, the 1987 and 2004 champion, is back for a seventh straight season alongside regulars Dynamo Kiev and Rangers.
All will look to match the standards set by Barcelona.
"We have new targets, new competitions to play, new titles to win," Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said. "I'm sure this year is going to be another great year."
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has already warned that it will be "nearly impossible" to repeat the success of his debut season _ winning the Champions League, the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey.
"If we did it for the first time it's normal to think that it won't happen again," Guardiola said after Barcelona became the first Spanish club to win three major trophies in a season. "You can't expect to win three titles, not even the next one."
The Spanish club's stylish triumph helped push the lucrative competition to new heights of popularity.
The 32 clubs will share at least ⁈llion ($1.07 billion) in prize money, as UEFA raised ⁈illion ($1.56 billion) in total revenues from television and marketing deals.
Each is guaranteed a ⁈llion ($10.1 million) participation fee and will get bonuses based on results. A group stage victory pays ⁈llion while the final next May is worth an extra ⁈ion to the winner and ⁈llion to the runner-up.
The cash rewards are up 33 percent on last year when runner-up Manchester United got the biggest payout, ⁈illion ($54 million). Clubs earn extra from sales of tickets and merchandise.
The potential bonanza would help repay Real Madrid's bank debts after it responded to Barcelona's dominance with a ⁈llion ($357 million) spending spree on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema _ leaving Man United, Milan and Lyon to search for a new source of goals.
The cash could transform the fortunes of Romanian champion Unirea, which played lower-tier football until three years ago.
The team from small-town Urziceni will play home matches in nearby Bucharest because its 7,000-capacity stadium does not meet UEFA standards.
Unirea is coached by Dan Petrescu, who played at Chelsea for five seasons and still has a cult following among fans.
Standard Liege, Hungarian club Debreceni and FC Zurich will play in the group stage for the first time after losing qualifying matches in previous seasons.
"This is a wonderful opportunity," Zurich coach Bernard Challandes said. "The Champions League is something extraordinary for a Swiss club."
Netherlands champion AZ Alkmaar played in the European Cup 28 years ago, but never in the Champions League, which was introduced for the 1992-93 season.
AZ lost its title-winning coach when Louis Van Gaal left and was replaced by Ronald Koeman, whose extra-time goal against Sampdoria won Barcelona its first European title at Wembley Stadium in 1992.
Van Gaal, who led Ajax to victory in 1995, is already under pressure after a poor start at Bayern Munich, which is seeking its fifth European title.
Wolfsburg also has lost the man who led the club into the Champions League. New coach Armin Veh was hired after Felix Magath _ another European Cup-winning scorer, for Hamburger SV against Juventus in 1983, left for Bundesliga rival Schalke.
A change to qualifying this season has helped fulfill UEFA president Michel Platini's desire to see more champions of mid-tier leagues guaranteed to compete at the highest level.
A total of 22 clubs instead of 16 went directly to the group stage, with the six additional places given to the champions of Turkey (Beziktas), Ukraine and Belgium and the third-place teams in England, Italy and Spain. The remaining places go to winners of 10 ties in the new playoff round.
Group stage play begins Sept. 15. The final is scheduled for May 22 _ on a Saturday for the first time _ at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain.


Updated : 2021-05-11 08:37 GMT+08:00